In South Jersey, 'panic mode' as tornado came off ocean and tore up Route 9

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

MARMORA, N.J. — The tornado came off the ocean in Strathmere and, like a beachgoer headed back home in a hurry, tore over the bridge out of Ocean City, cutting a path through the mainland community of Marmora in and around Route 9.

Witnesses in Marmora, a section of Upper Township in Cape May County, reported seeing a debris-filled tornado split into two spouts that ripped up roofs and downed power lines as Tropical Storm Isaias rolled through the region Tuesday. It skirted along Route 9, taking a direct hit at the Liberty Coca Cola Beverages center, the Glory Road grave marker business, and the Pine Hill Mobile Home court.

Still, no injuries were reported in the area.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency late Monday night in advance of the storm. It went into effect at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

The funnel, spinning with trees branches and other debris, tore through the parking lot of a nearby day-care center, where the owner gathered children into the bathroom for safety, said Jaime Bannon, whose two grandchildren, ages 1 and 5, were there.

Bannon said she was driving with her friend, Jill Moran, when they saw the tornado as they got off the Garden State Parkway onto Route 9 at Exit 25.

“It was pretty intense,” she said. “I went into panic mode.”

Across the street from the day care, where trees fell on either side of the building, Marilyn Sussman said she hid in a hallway of her home. Tuesday afternoon, she said she was still shaken, and still without power.

“At first it sounded like death,” she said, her dog Carly close by. “There was no wind rushing, and it got deathly quiet. And then it sounded like a train.”

Bannon said cars were swerving to turn around away from the scene, and the tornado appeared to split in two.

“There was damage all through,” she said. “I couldn’t believe any of it.”

On Route 9, Daniel Wilson, was home when the tornado touched down in Marmora, lifting his shed and causing other damage to his house.

At the Pine Hill Mobile Home Court, off Route 9, residents said they felt the extreme winds, but did not initially realize a tornado had likely hit.

Ellen Mallen became emotional when she looked over the broken tree that crushed her car and the damage to her house: The tornado sheered off an enclosed front porch and left it in pieces.

“I was right out here,” Mallen said from her front door, where she remained Tuesday afternoon, as fire officials consulted with her about whether she should stay. “And I heard — it was like a stillness. And I just came in.”

All around the mobile home park was evidence of the fierce 10 to 15 seconds of destruction: snapped trees, damaged roofs, torn-off foundations, crushed cars, siding flapping in the winds.

“Everything’s banging and clanging,” said Susan Rose, who said she had complained about dead trees, including one that toppled onto her neighbor’s home.

Mallen said there was no damage inside her home, and that she hoped she could stay there to care for her cats.

At the Coca Cola plant on Route 9, trailers were flipped over and windshields of employee cars were blown out. Trees were snapped in two, and power lines were down.

Scott Morgan, the head of emergency management in Upper Township, said it appeared the tornado traveled from Strathmere and cut a diagonal path through Marmora, with the area “getting the brunt of this storm” around 9:30 or 9:45 a.m.

“From all indications, from the videos we received, eye witnesses, we had a tornado go through here, roughly diagonally across Marmora, from about the 500 block of Shore Road to the 300 block of Stage Coach Road,” Morgan said.

He said there were no reported injuries, but some individuals were displaced and were being helped by the Red Cross. Many houses and businesses were damaged, and several utility poles were knocked down.

Most of the area is commercial property, but some is residential, Morgan said.

“The next stage obviously is cleanup and repair,” he said.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer